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Educator: Down with (traditional) homework!

Down With (traditional) Homework 

 
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The “no-homework” movement seems to be gaining traction. Elementary schools from Vermont to Florida are making headlines by issuing no-homework policies. More and more high schools look at their students struggling with anxiety and depression and wonder if homework might be exacerbating the problem.

As the pendulum of education swings, everyone seems to be unhappy. Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth writes:

“Parents who watch a torrent of busywork spill out of their children’s backpacks wish they could help teachers understand how the cons overwhelmingly outweigh the pros.  And teachers who have long harbored doubts about the value of homework feel pressured by those parents who mistakenly believe that a lack of afterschool assignments reflects an insufficient commitment to academic achievement. “

Research is sparse and everyone seems to throw around conflicting information about whether homework has been proven academically useful (compare this and this and this).

But throwing out homework altogether comes with its own set of problems.

Dr. Cooper compares homework to medicine."If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better."

First let’s talk about equity: Isn’t it nice to think that without homework all kids will be free to frolic in parks, practice their piano, work on a personal passion project about ancient China, eat dinner with their very relaxed parents, and go to bed early! That vision of family life exists for very few families. When we do away with homework altogether, we are putting the onerous on families to research, pay for, and monitor after-school enrichment activities for their children. Some parents welcome this challenge and many do not. (The New York Times wrote about how this plays out in a community here.)

And anyone who has ever spent time with a 9 year old who has access to Minecraft can tell you, the struggle is real. Getting your child to spend their free-time on something other than a screen, is not easy and homework does help some kids power down.

More importantly, without homework teachers lose a valuable connection with the home.

Now, this connection can be fraught with problems. As Taucia Gonzalez on the Equity Alliance Blog says, “All too often homework can be a measure of the kind of home a child comes from—how much the family values education, whether or not they are responsible, or even the extent of a home’s resources.”

However, this connection to the classroom that families can get through homework is vital. Dr. Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents says (in an email exchange), “Homework can give parents an opportunity to see what’s going on at school and learn about their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Two parents once told me they refused to believe their child had a learning disability until homework revealed it to them. Maybe that 20-minute assignment should involve parents and replace screen time…”

Dr. Cooper compares homework to medicine. "If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better."

So what can an educator do to make sure students have the right kind and the right amount of homework? May I suggest three steps.

  1. Refuse to accept the status quo. The problems with homework are real and worth addressing. Homework that is too hard, homework for the sake of homework, and mountains of homework are doing more harm than good. So, let’s figure this out. Alfie Kohn has some great suggestions to start (my favorite is to not assign something for homework that you didn’t create yourself.)

  2. Ask families to weigh in. As Gonzalez says, “Homework is full of power. It can create barriers or it can be constructed to connect families and schools.” So get families in on the conversation. Start with the homework survey in the Toolbox.

  3. Get creative. Experiment to emphasize the good and negate the bad in homework.

    Here are a few ideas:

  • Focus on the HOME in home work. Design your homework with the home in mind, instead of the school. Interactive homework (discussed in the Reader Questions) or homework where the child has a conversation with a family member is a great example of how we can put the “home” back in homework. Make sure you keep an eye on equity and make the conversations that any family could have in any language.

  • Make the work at home easier and the work at school harder. One of the major problems with homework is that students are introduced to a concept in class (low cognitive demand) and then expected to practice it at home (high cognitive demand). Flipped classrooms (discussed in the Reader Questions) turn this around. Students watch a video or do some preliminary work at home and then come to class ready to do and get help on the harder stuff from the teacher. This is not a technique that would work for every classroom, but with some creativity nearly all teachers could use this technique throughout the year.

  • Differentiate the homework by giving students more voice and choice. Mike Andersen wrote on Edutopia a very practical article about differentiating the homework--give students more choice over what they do for homework. One of his suggestions? Assign homework based on time instead of a set amount (“Practice the multiplication tables you need to memorize for 10 minutes. Let’s talk about how you might practice them” instead of “Do these 20 problems.”) Trevor Barton, a reading teacher, wrote about the effect of giving his student the opportunity to do homework that was their own idea. In my own experience in giving students voice and choice, I can say, it IS magical.

  • Be more flexible about time and grading. Another common way to make homework more doable is to give students more control about when they do it. Instead of assigning nightly homework, assign a packet that students can do over a week or so. That way students can practice planning and managing their time.

And get creative about grading. Too often we use homework as a trap instead of a stepstool, and “gotcha grading” is the major culprit. Again, speaking from personal experience, my children attend a school where homework is not graded but clearly connected to what they are doing in class. They are not any less motivated to do it.

Let’s see how these suggestions might play out in a classroom.

Jennifer Orr, in “The End of Homework” from ASCD Express describes the homework in her classroom.

“In my 5th grade class, I gave students two historical quotes and one image every Monday. By Friday, they had to write responses to each quote and image, and we would spend part of our morning meeting discussing them. Students built responsibility and time-management skills, and we had fascinating conversations that expanded all of our learning throughout the year. In my 1st grade class, students’ homework is to share a specific part of their day with their families. It is homework that doesn't require time away from any other activities and it can be done anywhere. This type of creative grading allows my students to benefit from talking about their day, reinforcing what they learned while informing their parents about their learning. It also eliminates the need to use letter grades that may interfere with equity.”

Mary, who blogs at Teaching with a Mountain View, started out the year with a “no-homework policy.” But if you read what actually happened, you can see that instead of doing away with homework altogether, she actually focused on the suggestions above. She built in student choice (kids read a book of their choice at home), she differentiated (the kids who needed more practice, she privately talked to you and gave them focused homework, the kids or parents who wanted more practice were given activities to do), she was flexible about time (the kids were assigned a letter that wasn’t due until the end of the week), she made the homework connect home and school (the kids wrote her a personal letter each week), and she flipped the classroom by focusing less on direct instruction and more on practice.

Start here: Send a homework survey to your students’ families to find out the ways you might improve the homework in your classroom. You can copy, paste and edit the one in the Toolbox.

Challenge yourself: Using the above suggestions, discuss with a colleague how you will change your homework next month. Commit to trying something new.

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